Norbert Elias writes, I think in his book What is Sociology, that it is only with hindsight that we can see that A led to B to C and so on because the contingency and uncertainty of how myriad actions and consequences, intended and unintended, worked out to produce what actually happened are open to historical and sociological investigation. However, in the present, as we stand today, in conditions of endemic and permanent uncertainty (to paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman’s description of liquid modernity) we cannot know for certain how things will turn out. The best we can do is to map out possible more and less likely future scenarios and, as actors and citizens, be as informed as possible in what direction we as individuals and collectively strive for. Certainly a starting point for this would be the unmasking of the ideological myth that there is no alternative.
One of Bauman’s favourite authors is Milan Kundera. Bauman has a particular view on the relationship between literature and sociology, or more precisely a certain sort of literature as sociology, that I find very interesting and will post about later. Here is an extract from one of Kundera’s essays that expresses well what Elias was saying about retrospective certainty versus forecasting uncertainty. The list of intellectuals and literary figures he refers to in this quote are all individuals who have been put on trial by history for supporting the wrong side, fascist or communist and some for both at different times. His argument is that looking at the present and future from their position and perspective might produce a very different appraisal of their character and their work. We are looking back with the clarity of hindsight; they were looking forward through the fog. The references to Tolstoy all relate as far as I can tell to War and Peace.
Tolstoy looks back on the Napoleonic Wars from a distance of fifty years. In his case, the new perception of history not only affects the structure of the novel, which has become more and more capable of capturing (in dialogue, in description) the historical nature of narrated events; but what interests him primarily is man’s relation to history (his ability to dominate it or to escape it, to be free or not in regard to it),and he takes up the problem directly, as the very themeof his novel, a theme he explores by every means, including novelistic reflection.
Tolstoy argues against the idea that history is made by the will and reason of great individuals. History makes itself, he says, obeying laws of its own, which remain obscure to man. Great individuals “all were the involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work that was concealed from them.” Later on: “Providence compelled all these men, each striving to attain personal aims, to combine in the accomplishment of a single stupendous result not one of them (neither Napoleon nor Alexander and still less anyone who did the actual fighting) in the least expected.” And again: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is unconsciously a tool in the attainment of the historic, general aims of mankind.” From which comes this tremendous conclusion: “History, that is, the unconscious, general herd-life of mankind …” (I emphasize the key phrases.)
With this conception of history, Tolstoy lays out the metaphysical space in which his characters move. Knowing neither the meaning nor the future course of history, knowing not even the objective meaning of their own actions (by which they “involuntarily” participate in events whose meaning is “concealed from them”), they proceed through their lives as one proceeds in the fog. I say fog, not darkness. In the darkness, we see nothing, we are blind, we are defenseless, we are not free. In the fog, we are free, but it is the freedom of a person in fog: he sees fifty yards ahead of him, he can clearly make out the features of his interlocutor, can take pleasure in the beauty of the trees that line the path, and can even observe what is happening close by and react.
Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them–Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-JohnPerse, Giono–all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?
Mayakovsky’s blindness is part of the eternal human condition.
But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky’s path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.
Milan Kundera 1995 Testaments Betrayed: An Essay In Nine Parts. Extract from Part Eight, Paths in the Fog pages 237-238.
Terry Wassall is a sociologist at the University of Leeds. This was originally posted on Terry’s blog.